As many of you know, I have been putting on wine dinners at a local restaurant for the better part of a year (the next one is on January 20th, send me an email [jeff (at) thedrunkencyclist (dot)com] if you are interested).
I have wanted to do it for a several years, but I was always worried that it would be far too much work for very little reward. When I finally decided to do it, I found there was a dearth of information of all that goes into it available on the internet.
Although I am far from an expert, there are a few things that I have learned that may (or may not) be of use as you try to plan your own event.
I have split the tips up into what to do before the event and what you needs to happen at the event itself. For today, I will focus on the former:
Have a theme. Even though this is certainly not vital (my first “theme” was “Wines currently on the by-the-glass menu” but it was really “Excess bottles that the restaurant wanted to clear out of stock.”), it will help as you try to wax poetically about the wines, how they pair with the food, and why you chose them. Unless the restaurant has a bunch of wines on their list already that you would like to use (and this is doubtful–if they had exceedingly interesting wines, that means someone is already there with wine knowledge and they therefore would not need you), you are going to need to order the wines and get them in well before hand. In Pennsylvania, this is a huge ordeal. Understand that the wines you may want might not be wines the restaurant wants to buy (usually due to cost).
- Hold the dinner during the week. Restaurants do most of their business on the weekend, so they will likely be more amenable to weeknight events. When pitching the idea, suggest a Tuesday, Wednesday, or even Thursday night. You might think that customers will be disinclined to attend a mid-week event, but they will come as long as they know about it.
- Limit the number of people. More than likely, the restaurant will be averse to this proposal as they would like you to fill the restaurant completely, but that would diminish the experience for everybody. It also makes ordering the wine tougher. I limit my dinners to 20 people, which means four bottles of each wine (I plan on one bottle serving five people–you could certainly get more people out of a bottle, but I will talk more about that in Part 2).
The restaurant may or may not have a plan to get people in the door. I have worked with a couple of managers now and they seemed to have different approaches, but they ended up with the same result: neither one really did anything to bring patrons to the event. Look, I get it. Restaurants are (hopefully) busy places and there is a lot happening on any given night, but in my opinion, it would not take much effort on the part of the restaurant to bring at least a few people in. For whatever reason, out of the half-dozen or so dinners I have done thus far, it would not take more than two hands to count how many total people came due to the efforts of the restaurant. By far, the majority of the attendees I contacted through either email or social media. I create an event on Facebook and invite all my friends in the area, allowing them to invite others as well. There is also Local Wine Events where you can post the event (although I am pretty sure that I have not received any traffic from this). If the restaurant uses Open Table, they will likely have an email list that they can blast with the event. I have not done this yet, because I have been able to get enough people without it.
- Settle on your fee up front. I hate asking people for money. Hate it. But I forced myself to do it when I started doing this since I knew it would involve a ton of my time. Even though it might be fun, or like me, you might want to so it for the experience, you are bringing both expertise and money into the restaurant and you deserve to be compensated. I would strongly suggest that you settle on a flat rate: my first couple dinners I was to be paid per paying customer and I found that I was far too concerned with how many people came through the door than with actually producing a fun and informative evening for the people who actually did show up. It is unlikely that you will make a fortune doing these, so keep that in mind. I would be happy to let you know what I make: just drop me an email. The next time I negotiate a fee, I will push for a flat fee plus a percentage of the tips.
Have a firm understanding of what people will be charged. I have been burned by this a couple of times: I had been told that tax and tip would be included in the advertised price only to have the manager at the restaurant change his mind once the people were already in their seats. Not cool. Not cool at all, but at the end of the day, it was my fault for not getting a clear understanding from the beginning.
- There is no such thing as “the menu is set.” No matter what, there will be changes to the menu and you have to be ready to roll with the punches. Sure, that delicate Oregon Pinot Noir would have been perfect with the pork loin that was originally planned, but when it gets swapped out for some venison at the last minute, you better be ready to either switch the order of the wines or make that Pinot work.
Have you ever put on a wine dinner at a restaurant? I would love to hear about your experience!